Anthropology of Peace and Justice Studies
Anthropology of Peace and Justice Studies
- Eric MontgomeryEric MontgomeryMichigan State University
- and Elizabeth DrexlerElizabeth DrexlerMichigan State University
The early 21st century has seen the largest protests for social justice in the history of the U.S., including the Women’s Marches of 2016–2020 as well as the Movement for Black Lives. Meanwhile, the Farmers’ Protest in India constitutes the largest and most expensive protest in the history of the world. Cases of state and political violence and genocide around the world have been addressed in transitional justice processes and peace agreements or commemorated in various forms. And yet, even as individuals and groups mobilize for peace and justice, violence and oppression continue to proliferate around the world. What we identify as the anthropology of peace and justice encompasses the empirical analysis, theoretical engagement, and practical advocacy of anthropologists across the subfields. These anthropologists work to identify, conceptualize, and study individual and collective engagement with violence, oppression, injustice, and efforts to make change, seek justice, and establish sustainable peace. Anthropological theory and methods are well suited to capture emergent, ongoing, and innovative struggles for justice that occur in a range of social, cultural, political, and institutional realms drawing on collective cultural and symbolic actions. Today’s anthropologists engage with issues of violence, conflict, inequality, and struggles for justice and equity. We highlight theoretical, methodological, analytic, and ethnographic elements that distinguish anthropological approaches to peace and justice studies from other disciplines that examine this domain. Anthropologists engaging immigrant rights, movements for racial justice, indigenous rights, climate justice, gender equity, the Fight for $15, Occupy Wallstreet, gun violence, and issues of authoritarian rule and neoliberalism (market-oriented principles and government deregulation) in the era of globalization continue to build this vibrant and expanding area of anthropological concern.
- Applied Anthropology
- International and Indigenous Anthropology
- Sociocultural Anthropology
Despite the prominence of justice-related issues in contemporary anthropology, there is not a clearly defined body of work that constitutes an anthropology of peace and justice. In fact, many anthropologists, such as Sam Beck, have challenged anthropologists to take their critical praxis from the ivory tower into the community and streets as active agents in the struggle for social justice and democratization.1 We draw on work by contemporary anthropologists who address violence, justice, social movements, resistance, and related concerns to outline an approach to peace and justice issues that is intersectional and multidimensional (Drexler 2020). “Intersectionality” is a term coined in 1991 by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to examine overlapping forms of injustice that become legally invisible (1991).2 The term broadly defined includes “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”3 After three decades of work on this issue, Crenshaw reflected on what the term does and does not mean;4 she articulated a vision of “intersectional justice” as “the fair and equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, rights and political power within society.”5 Intersectionality can promote radical empathy. Intersectionality has also been identified as a key pedagogy for peacemaking.6 Intersectionality resonates with an anthropological focus on understanding the context in which individual choices and agency are structured and constrained by broader social conditions with intergenerational and longitudinal dimensions. Elizabeth Drexler outlines a framework for an intersectional and multidimensional approach to peace and justice (2020):
Multidimensional understanding includes examining how the past haunts the present, how effective forces disrupt rational processes or institutions, how cultural dynamics and patterns work visibly and invisibly and how stories and perceptions, both public and private, work for and against justice. … looking through a multidimensional lens to understand why various injustices are differentially experienced by particular populations, how institutions are corrupted by affect and irrationality, how institutions maintain the inequalities they are called upon to resolve and how understanding certain problems in isolation leads to the failure of interventions. A multidimensional and intersectional analysis emphasizes the structures and gaps that ensure that some people are consistently denied the protection of laws and citizenship while enabling others to continue to believe in the ideals and narratives of rule of law and democracy (overlooking systematic gaps). (p. 6)
Anthropological theory and methods are well suited to articulating and contextualizing the realities of violence and injustice for individuals as part of social groups as well as documenting struggles for peace and justice and imagining sustainable, equitable futures across time and space. Anthropological analysis provides a complex and multidimensional understanding of social problems that remain invisible in other analyses. For example, anthropologists highlight the importance of the past in the present (Trouillot 1995), such as intergenerational transmission of trauma after violence (Ferme 2018), compounding privilege based on systemic racism, or the role of affect (emotion and bias) in seemingly rational institutions of justice (Clarke 2019). Anthropological analyses demonstrate how the knowledge about groups is political and consequential: norms, categories, and language are not neutral. Peace is not simply the absence of physical violence, and justice is not simply the result or goal of law. Social movements take on distinct forms in particular times and places at the intersection of local concerns, global forces, power relations, circulation of ideas, and historical contexts.
The subfields of anthropology add unique perspectives on issues of critical concern to peace and justice. For example, forensic analysis reveals the complexity of identifying those missing after violence (Wagner 2008), the nature of evidence (Crossland 2009), and the social life of human remains (Rosenblatt 2015). Jason DeLeon’s examination of the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy draws on a four-field approach combining linguistic, archaeological, ethnographic, and forensic analysis to weave an affectively powerful story which makes visible the devastation and human suffering rendered invisible in policy discussions of “prevention through deterrence.” DeLeon’s work exemplifies the unique contribution anthropology has to make through deep and sustained analysis of particular cases drawing on multiple perspectives and sources of data to tell an important human story. Other recent work highlights the strength of anthropological analysis of the meaning, practice, and conceptualization of key ideas such as justice within, beyond, and against the law (Brunneggar 2020), violence in its complexity and specificity (Drexler 2009),7 especially the implication of the U.S. in violence and its denial (Price 2016; Lutz 2002, 2019), the resonance between white supremacy in the U.S. and genocide (Hinton 2021), or human rights as they are “vernacularized” (Merry 2006a, 2006b). These perspectives on the social life of key ideas and institutions related to justice provide greater nuance and complexity to public discussions than normative ideas or quantitative data. Anthropology’s approach to humanizing issues and providing fine-grained, qualitative analysis of particular societies has been a constant. However, anthropology’s role in public debate and advocacy has shifted over time. Public anthropology amplifies the importance of anthropological work on peace and justice themes to an audience beyond academia.
Anthropological Challenges and Legacies
Despite recent exemplary work noted above, anthropology, as a discipline, has a problematic history regarding public advocacy for peace and justice issues.
Anthropologists and anthropological knowledge have been used to secure hegemonic power and repress marginalized peoples and societies (Pinkoski 2008; Pels 1997). Essentialized descriptions of inferior others were often used to justify colonial projects. Deviance from European gender and sexual norms was used to rationalize colonial domination and, based on the authority of anthropology as a science, to universalize, naturalize, and spread European morality (Morgenson 2011; Stoler 1995, 2010; Wilson 2019). Early studies of law and custom by anthropologists were complicit with colonial power (Merry 1999). Racial categorizations created in service of colonization have exacerbated racism and been implicated in violence and genocide (Mamdani 2001). The legacies of colonial projects, especially in the ways that knowledge about other groups is produced, have persisted in myriad forms, including language, categorization, and law (Wilson 2019). Anthropologists and archaeologists must address issues of redress and repatriation of artifacts and remains as fundamental issues of justice and rights for the discipline.8
Culture and “race” are often seen as variables or tools in the perpetration of violence and the normalization of inequality and discrimination. Perhaps no discipline has been more complicit in the propagation of racial classifications than anthropology.9 Anthropological validations of race, though now scientifically discredited, legitimized racism, underwrote Jim Crow statutes, and validated the enactment of anti-immigrant legislation (Baker and Patterson 1994). The relationship between race and IQ, social class and intelligence, and the resurgence of biological determinism is based on flawed and inaccurate science but persisted for over a century. Anthropologists have also helped to construct a world in which melanin levels determine life chances and perpetuate structural violence that lessen opportunities for people of color. In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois called the “problem of color”10 the issue of the 20th century; despite constructions of ethnicity and other claims of progress, it remains a profound and fundamental problem in the 21st century. Today’s debates around Critical Race Theory (CRT) are political lightning rods in the US, despite offering relevant research-based frameworks for policymakers and academics to discuss the social construct of race.11 People of color (and indigenous communities) continue to be disproportionately disaffected by violence, from direct wars to more subtle but equally insidious trends such as childhood poverty, mass incarceration, lack of health care, educational and occupational access, and outcomes. Despite the call from anthropologists for the neutrality of a biological concept of race, probably no other single factor is as important a determinant of status as “race.” The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has determined, “Whatever the utility of race for examination of adaptive differences in populations, the AAA now considers the harmful nature of a sociological definition of race to have dangers that outweigh the usefulness of any biological definition.”12 The statement continues, “Since all human variations are capable of interbreeding, human beings are all capable of learning the cultural traits of another group.” It concludes by saying “that present-day inequalities between human groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance; rather, these inequalities are products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political factors.” Race is socially constructed, but continues to produce very real inequalities.
The idea of cultural relativism holds that individual actions should be judged according to the values and context of their own culture rather than being evaluated by the morals and values of another culture.13 Franz Boas advocated for the idea starting in the late 1880s, but the term did not become popular until after his death in 1942. For some scholars, cultural relativism and related romanticization of other cultures were part of a project of saving diverse cultures from the onslaught of homogenizing globalization and rejecting Western claims to universalism (Marcus and Fischer 1986). This concept influenced methodological development, especially ethnographic fieldwork observing the local context and comparison across cultures and times. Cultural relativism, the AAA refused to endorse notions of universal human rights in 1948 (Goodale 2009). As it became identified with moral relativism, cultural relativism could be used to critique or defend colonialism, imperialism, and racialism. Marriage practices (Archambault 2011), female genital cutting (Gruenbaum 2001; Silverman 2004), and many other areas connected with women’s rights (Hodgson 2011), agency, and Western cultural norms (Ticktin 2008; Sandy 2007) have generated significant discussion about the role of outsider interventions. Research highlights the important work being done in particular contexts by local women scholars and advocates (Abusharaf 2009) and questions why particular issues receive more attention than others (Archambault 2011). The idea of relativism casts a long shadow over anthropological fieldwork, engagement with communities, and issues of representation and advocacy.
Diversity and Equity in the Discipline
Anthropology as a discipline has made some improvements regarding gender equity, both in cultural analyses throughout the world and within the discipline itself. The number of women working as anthropologists in academic positions exceeds the number of men in similar positions; however, gender and racial equity has not been achieved. Non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals, Black or indigenous people, and people of color are under-represented. At recent conferences and within the professional associations, gender discrimination is being addressed through monitoring (membership numbers and grant funding), advocacy (within and beyond the discipline), and education. Biological anthropologist and feminist Kathryn Clancy testified before the U.S. House in 2018 on sexual harassment in the sciences, where she identified forms of sexual harassment and bullying and other long-range actions relating to issues of gender parity.14 Many women of color still face discrimination and have voiced these concerns in publications, at conferences, and in various other outlets.15 In 2020, the Society for American Archeology came under fire for not doing enough to confront racial injustice,16 and many have correctly pointed out for decades the problem of “Anthropology as a White Public Space” (Brodkin et al. 2011). Gender and race create both distinct and compounding inequities; the intersections of race, gender, and class should be central concerns in anthropology.17 Understanding intersectionality and privilege will be paramount for anthropology’s legitimacy in and outside of the university going forward. Although women have recently become the majority in academic and professional circles in anthropology, patriarchy continues to dominate the discipline in many ways.18
Representation, Advocacy, and Public Anthropology
In the 1970s, anthropologists focused on issues of representation, objectivity, and power.19 Dell Hymes pointed to problems of “othering,” methodological issues, and positionality of the anthropologist (1972). Michelle Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist, and Louise Lamphere (1974) and Rayna Rapp (1975) highlighted the importance of gender. Talal Asad pointed to the influence of issues of world politics, such as colonialism and domination, on the production of anthropological and historical representation (1973). With the liberation of colonized peoples came a postcolonial era calling for new roles, methodologies, and concepts, including the call for “native ethnography”20 from throughout the “Global South” and by marginalized peoples more generally (Lewis 1973). The Association of Indigenous Anthropologists was formed as a part of the AAA in the 1980s with anthropologist Beatrice Medicine, a Lakota ethnographer. Since the formation of the AAA in 1902, there have been fewer than 100 indigenous members. Despite the importance of Native American culture to anthropology in the U.S., the discipline has not done enough to advance the inclusion of native and indigenous anthropologists.21 Issues confronting indigenous and native populations in the US and throughout the world involve forced assimilation, violence and brutality, dispossession of land and water resources, and ecological desecration in the name of “development.”22
Many anthropologists sought to advocate for the societies they studied. As early as 1991, Faye V. Harrison argued that anthropologists needed to “to accept the challenge of working to free the study of humankind from the prevailing forces of global inequality, and dehumanization, and to locate it firmly in the complex struggle for genuine transformation”; the importance of anthropology as a discipline that promotes transformation remains unrealized.23 Other scholars have conducted cross-cultural linguistic analysis to highlight the importance of producing transformative knowledge that takes seriously the perspectives of indigenous, minoritized, subaltern (marginalized peoples), and under-represented voices to explain the world as it is and to inspire, imagine, strategize, and work to create a more just and equitable world for all humans, the planet, and other species.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, anthropologists debated the idea of activist anthropology and the possibility of neutrality and objectivity. Discussions of reflexivity pointed to the ways in which the positionality and identity of researchers changed the field they intervened in and suggested that objectivity was impossible (Marcus and Fischer 1986). Writing about his involvement in a land rights struggle, Charles Hale defines activist anthropology as “a method through which we affirm a political alignment with an organized group of people in struggle and allow dialogue with them to shape each phase of the process, from conception of the research topic to data collection to verification and dissemination of the results”24 (2006, 97). Native anthropologist Shannon Speed argues that activist research on rights engages ethical issues and is productive for the discipline (2006). Some scholars have noted the inherent asymmetry of power in ethnographic research while engaging in academic projects of cultural critique of the conditions of how anthropological knowledge is created that do not involve participation and alignment with groups (Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford 1988).
Anthropologists have long contended with ethical dimensions relating to participant observation, for the more integrated they become in the host community, the more human-relations problems occur (Ezeh 2005) (see Figure 1). Paul Nkwi’s work in the Cameroonian grass-fields unveils great political, economic, and gender divides that come with attempts at regional balance and national integration. Once the research takes on an “activist arc,” it often breeds more ethical dilemmas for the social scientists to sort out (Nkwi and Nyamnjoh 2011). Nkwi’s main interest was in the dynamics of social change in the face of pervasive globalization. Nkwi is an applied anthropologist who, as an administrator of research in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, developed programs in medical and environmental anthropology. His interest in the development and colonial nature of anthropology led to the Pan African Anthropological Association and he continues to work directly with the Cameroonian government to improve youth development, social, and economic justice. Anthropology’s inherent ethical dilemmas and problems, with the field’s own cultural bias and colonial language, means that a more relevant anthropology must echo and amplify the voice of the people. Otherwise, anthropology may be doomed to fall into an elitist trap enveloped in a crisis of representation.25
Historically, many universities have not valued engaged or applied anthropology (until recently). Anthropologists must assess the risks and benefits when taking political stances in the academy, for obtaining permission to conduct research, or for endangering or disrupting the communities with whom they work. Although anthropologists actively work in all sectors of political economy, many practitioners (inside and outside of the academy, including those working for nonprofits and government agencies) continue to avoid social justice and activist anthropology (i.e., collaborative ethnography) that allows the “subjects” to participate in their own decisions. Many are afraid of being discriminated against for taking a stance, others simply want to focus on archival research or teaching, whereas other practitioners working in nonprofits, business, and government are typically charged with implementing change. Others are concerned about “weaponizing anthropology,” the use of anthropological knowledge and methods by the military and intelligence agencies in post-911 America.
Public anthropology seeks to bring fine-grained anthropological knowledge to wider audiences and integrate it into public discussions.26 Drawing on anthropological literature, ethnographic research, and a review of pertinent websites and videos—members across all subdisciplines are encouraging more ongoing dialogues, and sparking new ones, about the role of anthropology and peace and conflict studies in contemporary times. These issues proliferate on the internet and on social media sites.27 The film “The Anthropologist”28 profiles the work of Margaret Mead and Susie Crate with a sharp multi-sited focus on climate change and its effects on native populations across time and space. In addition to developing collaborative and ethical research topics, anthropologists need to consider how the knowledge is disseminated. Public anthropology is most effective when it accesses communities outside of its discipline. Code-switching (performing to your social context), interdisciplinarity, and speaking to the “public” and not just other academics are crucial, especially since anti-intellectualism and the mistrust of science are grave concerns in today’s society.29
Robert Borofsky, at the Center for Public Anthropology, and other “public anthropologists” such as Helen Fisher, Paul Farmer, and Muriel Crespi have been a vanguard of public anthropology for almost two decades (1999, 2004, 2006). Borofsky argues that students have a keen interest to invoke societal and cultural change and that anthropologists should be shedding light on the social justice activism and peace and conflict issues of our times to encourage broad public conversations and policy changes. Others suggest that public anthropology is just another term for applied anthropology.30 Public anthropology addresses problems and audiences beyond the discipline and fosters social change (Borofsky 2004). Public anthropology is about casting a wider net around issues of social justice. Applied anthropology often includes anthropologists working with communities and in organizational contexts, whereas public anthropology often refers to the work that academic anthropologists have published for general audiences. These terms distinguish this kind of public engagement from earlier “activist” (before the terms public and activist existed) work as not scholarly, not objective according to many of the old guard.
Brill Publishers has launched a new journal called Public Anthropologist, which highlights anthropological perspectives on current issues for a wider general (i.e., non-anthropological) audience. Public Anthropology, Public Anthropologist, Sapiens, and Allegra are all web-based platforms and are readily available to the public. They are designed to make anthropology more fluid and communal and often explore issues of peace, conflict, and justice as they relate to anthropology and societal trends. These platforms often are interactive venues with blogs and are written for laypersons, encouraging the intellectual exchange of ideas. Some university presses, such as University of California Press, continue to grow their collections with “real world” texts combining issues of anthropology, justice, and societal transformation.31
War and Peace
Anthropological analysis of other cultures has been used to support militarism and ongoing imperial wars and the logic. This analysis conveys that certain societies are more and less violent than others but ignores the role of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism in violence that is described as “tribal.” Debates about the role of anthropologists in “security studies,” embedded with occupying militaries, and in “countering violent extremism” continue (Spencer 2010; Atran et al. 2018). “Anthropology of security and security in anthropology” have involved cases of counterterrorism in the U.S. as well as new socio-spatial frameworks for anthropology of security (Samimian-Darash and Stalcup 2017; Gluck and Low 2017). Some see this as a continuation of the “colonial project” where anthropologists serve the interest of American militarization, especially in places such as Africa32 (see Keenan 2008).
Anthropologists often ask whether Homo sapiens as a species is more prone to violence or to peace (Hass 1990; Otterbein 1999, 2009) (see Figure 2). This question harkens back to the letters between Freud and Einstein, in which they also discussed a global solution for war and prodded at perhaps the most anthropological question of all: Who are we as human beings?33 It has been a fundamental question for anthropological courses combining the themes of science, technology, culture, and war (Glowacki et al. 2020). This debate over the propensity of our species for either peace or violence has often yielded to the deliberation of doves vs. hawks (terms applied to people based on their views of military conflict), and most anthropologists and archeologists lean toward one side or the other.
Ethnographic and bioanthropological studies of the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazonian rainforest have been at the center of such debates for decades (Ferguson 1992; Chagnon 1966, 1968). The lengthy memoir of Napoleon Chagnon divided anthropologists, human rights campaigners, and journalists, some of whom claimed that his work of framing the Yanomami as “warlike” and “savage” allowed for future oppression by governments and settlers. Chagnon defends himself from that charge in his book The Noble Savage, in which he attacks his fellow anthropologists.34 Many “tribal” societies attribute violence to revenge and witchcraft accusations which certainly spiked during times of colonial culture contact from the outside in contemporary times (Geshiere 1997, 2013). As Chagnon wrote in his book on the Yanomami, “New wars usually develop when charges of sorcery are leveled against the members of a different group. Once raiding has begun between two villages, however, the raiders all hope to acquire women if the circumstances are such that they can flee without being discovered” (1968, 39).35 This quote implies that villagers were motivated by their desire to control women raising deeper questions as to what was at play. Feminist anthropologists have critiqued this paradigm of analysis (Rubin 1997).
Prestige and social benefits among indigenous warriors have long been tied to successful raiding and killing, as Robert Gardner shows in his film Dead Birds (1963) among Papua New Guinea cultures. The occasionally violent cultural traditions of the Yanomami and groups the world over may predate Western contact: wife capture during raids, witchcraft accusations, and ritual killing. Nevertheless, the importation of Western goods such as guns, and their unequal distribution, can certainly upset the order of societies constructed around reciprocity and gift-giving. Many claim that neoliberal capitalism and modernity create similar haves and have-nots; moreover, poverty, coupled with access to guns and drugs, creates a perfect storm for high rates of violence (e.g., in Jamaica, South Africa, U.S. cities, Brazil, and Afghanistan).
Anthropology and militarism have a rather sordid history in the West. In the U.S., anthropology grew and matured during the age of Western empire and yet ethnographers hardly wrote about nuclear weapons, U.S. military bases in other countries, or wars of aggression for the exploitation of resources (Gusterson 2007). Anthropological commentaries record that violence is pervasive, ancient, varied, and a core fact to human existence but also is poorly understood (Whitehead 2004, 2). Meanwhile, medical anthropologists have been at the forefront of fighting what Paul Farmer (2004) calls “pathologies of power” and “the new war against the poor,” as he and other anthropologists confront political violence, war, and health-care disparities in anthropology (Rylko-Bauer and Singer 2011).
Evolutionary anthropologists and the anthropology of war gauge conflict across multiple time frames, from the roots of warfare in intergroup violence of our primate ancestors to the ongoing violence of contemporary societies. Some recognize aggression not as an “instinct” for war but instead as an outcome of evolved “psychological” mechanisms—including xenophobia, structural poverty, and ethnic and religious superiority. The textbook Waging War (2013) by historian and archaeologist Wayne Lee looks at the carrying capacity of certain spaces for groups, military technology, and culture as well as contextual political and economic relations to explain why and how societies wage war with one another.
Douglas Fry (2007) challenged the common view of humans as warlike by arguing for a propensity toward peace, emphasizing cooperation for survival (see Figure 3). He provides evolutionary and sociocultural perspectives, arguing that humans are more peaceful than warlike. His historical inventory is constructed through ethnographic studies of groups such as the Semai, Waorani, and even the Yanomami—where he argues that scientists and the media have biased and prioritized violence over nonviolence and thus distorted the truth regarding human cultural traditions. There is little doubt that war is changing, as evidenced by the killing of noncombatants, increased economic inequality, the use of child soldiers, and robotically controlled munitions (Barash and Webel 2019, 47–49).
The anthropology of nonviolence needs to be amplified since significantly less academic research is done on it than on the anthropology of violence. Nonviolence offers a different narrative that focuses on human existential-personal development; nonviolence (along with economic, social, and environmental justice) may be destined to become one of the priority settings of modernity. The international architecture for peacebuilding based on neoliberal state-building is established. However, the engagement with subjects in everyday contexts has been absent, and some suggest that concentration on elite power and problem-solving has erased the dynamics, agency, and diversity of human societies, thus requiring anthropological and ethnographic sensitivity (Richmond 2018).
Leslie Sponsel (2014) has called for an “anthropology of peace and nonviolence,” which is a growing area of concern in the discipline. Beyond the relativity of “peace” and “war,” ethnographers are intervening with epistemologies tied to human interaction in violent contexts, demanding gender and cultural identity perspectives within peace studies (Hydle 2006, 257–267). Many anthropological studies have identified peaceful societies and the resocialization and reconciliatory abilities of peoples suffering from trauma and atrocities (Turner and Pitt 1989; Otterbein 1999; Nazaretyan 2009). Around the world, political and legal anthropology has opened frameworks and debates for indigenous and non-Western approaches to conflict resolution, many of which have even been applied with success in areas such as Sudan, Guatemala, and the Middle East (Irani and Lebanon 1999; Sieder and Witchell 2001; Danne 2004; Yassine-Hamdan and Pearson 2014). Most African states adhere to a pluralistic law that includes customary law, religious edicts, common law, and state legislation. Anthropologist Sally Falk Moore (2000) advocates deep immersion into customary law within the society instead of separating it from society itself. Eric Montgomery’s work in Togo focuses on peace and collective mobilizations for better governance and an end to a despotic dictatorial regime, often through the laws surrounding “African Vodun,” a local system of jurisprudence (Montgomery 2017, 2021). Cultural anthropology looks to provide a critical component of peacebuilding (resolving injustice through nonviolent ways), ensuring that international interventions are appropriate to locally specific cultural contexts (see Figure 4).36 Political and legal anthropologists also point to sources of conflict in neoliberalism, international interventions, and global power configurations. Drawing on renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s essay on Rousseau, Heonik Kwon (2020) has pointed out that the pursuit of world peace has long been core to modern anthropology.37
Law, Human Rights, and Transitional Justice
Anthropologists initially refused to take part in the 1947–48 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that nothing could be universal. As public advocacy intensified in the 1990s and later, anthropologists engaged with human rights–related issues as advocates, often using human rights instruments as tools of advocacy for indigenous and other groups. Mark Goodale (2006a, 2006b, 2009) and several other scholars have written insightful analyses of the transformation and consistency (Messer 2009) of anthropological engagement with human and cultural rights. More recently, anthropologists have turned their attention to anthropological analysis of the concepts and practices of human rights, focusing on the networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other actors involved in the dissemination of human rights (Riles 2000). The anthropology of human rights is now a flourishing area of concern detailed by Samuel Martinez and Catherine Buerger in an Oxford bibliography article from 201738 as well as the work of Peter van Arsdale on global human rights for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology.39 This section focuses primarily on work by cultural anthropologists, particularly the ways in which local and global forces are interconnected in the struggles of individuals and groups in the context of neoliberalism and the practice and discourses of international human rights law, genocide, and transitional justice processes. These studies provide rich empirical analysis of particular case studies and how culture, history, and global forces contribute to violence in particular times and places. In addition, anthropological work has contributed new insights to theorize how international criminal law and interventions fail to contribute to sustainable peace and justice.
Turning the anthropological gaze to the instruments of human rights and international law (especially in the case of transitional justice) as objects of analysis (rather than tools for advocacy) is complicated. It highlights the dearth of context provided in international human rights reporting and thus the need for more anthropological examination of these processes (Wilson 1997). Understanding the “practice” of human rights has generated numerous anthropological studies. Goodale describes practice as the “ways in which social actors across the range talk about, advocate for, criticize, study, legally enact, vernacularize, and so on, the idea of human rights in its various forms” (2007, 24; see also Wilson 2007). Key frameworks, including the processes of “translation” (e.g., of the Convention on Ending Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] Merry 2006a, 2006b) and “vernacularization” (Merry 2006a, 2006b) by which international human rights norms become salient in local contexts often through the work of NGOs and other “middle” people (Merry 2006b), have disrupted dichotomous understandings of international human rights norms and local cases. Unlike legal and political science approaches to human rights as legal problems, these studies have raised new questions about law and society. Studies emphasize how law and international legal processes fail (Drexler 2011) or undermine other struggles for justice (Clarke 2009). Alternatively, they focus on how movements use the language and institutions of law in a process of “lawfare” to contest state power (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). Some have focused on how human rights struggles for dignity intersect with issues of citizenship and infrastructural rights (von Schnitzler 2014). Other scholars have attended to the politics of numbers of human rights violations (Nelson 2015) or analyzed the indicators by which human rights are measured and discussed (Merry 2011). Scholars have also analyzed the perspectives, construction, and categorization of victims (Warren 2010) and perpetrators (Schirmer 1998; Hinton 2016) and how the discourse and practice of human rights may actually be used to divert political engagement and organization (Ticktin 2008).
Anthropologists exploring violence and justice have theorized the state and its limits (Das and Poole 2004) and its affective presence (Aretxaga 2003) and have opened new ways for understanding the state as it is experienced in everyday life. Infrastructure has provided a framework for exploring interconnected elements that produce violence and injustice (Anand 2017) and the difficulties of framing responsibility (Ferguson 2012). Anthropologists have provided ethnographic descriptions of the micropolitics of rebuilding ordinary lives after violence (Das 2007), which often is intimate and personal (Theidon 2013) or involves traitors and betrayal (Thiranagama and Kelly 2010; Thiranagama 2011). Anthropologists contribute unique perspectives on genocide (Hinton 2002) and provided multifaceted analyses of how genocide is connected to culture and identity and how it unfolds in particular cases, exploring the motivation of perpetrators (Hinton 2005) and documenting the experience of stigmatized groups and their efforts to seek justice (Sanford 2003). Many anthropologists have considered the alignments of truth, memory, and representation in genocide’s aftermath (Hinton and O’Neill 2009). Taking a longer view, other scholars have explored the role of anthropological and colonial categorizations that have contributed to genocide (Mamdani 2001).
Examining international institutions and processes dedicated to addressing past violations of human rights (especially as part of the Cold War) has led to richly detailed ethnographic accounts of transitional justice processes as they are localized (Shaw et al. 2010; Hinton 2010). Anthropologists have noted the ethical and methodological complexities of research on these topics. Transitional justice40—the set of institutions and processes, including tribunals, truth commissions, public rituals, and commemorations enacted by successor states to distance themselves from state violence and authoritarianism—has been analyzed by anthropologists to disclose how survivors and families respond to top-down initiatives. Early analysis of truth and reconciliation commissions, temporary bodies designed to investigate past violence and produce a comprehensive report which typically involves survivor testimony, often assumed the “healing” value of testifying to past violence (see Figure 5).41 Anthropologists have critiqued this revealing is healing approach based on gendered politics of testimony and victimization, especially the silences related to testimony of sexual violence (Ross 2003) and the notion that testifying is psychologically healing (Hamber and Wilson 2002). Rosalind Shaw (2007) has documented how narratives produced by official institutions overlap and diverge from local memories. Marianne Ferme (2018) has argued for the critical importance of longitudinal fieldwork to understand the belated nature of post-conflict trauma. Others have explored how institutions dedicated to justice and reconciliation may be perceived as sending contradictory messages (Wilson 2001; Doughty 2014) and exacerbating tensions or ignoring popular notions of justice (Nelson 1996, 1999). Truth commissions generate expectations that often are not fulfilled (Theidon and Laplante 2007). In addition to shedding light on experiences in times of conflict (some elements of which are elided by formal truth-seeking efforts) and post-conflict reckonings, these studies illuminate how international and internationalized institutions intersect with local power dynamics, cultural practices, and histories, often producing consequences unintended by their architects. Where political scientists see a justice cascade, anthropological research discloses how justice is more of a façade and points to less visible, long-term patterns (Hinton 2018).
In addition to critiquing normative transitional justice through an analysis of particular local cases, anthropologists use their detailed case studies to unsettle the criminal law’s normative claims (Palmer and Kroner 2019). Many of these cases draw on anthropological analysis of international legal actors. For example, Richard Wilson analyzes the role of expert testimony in international tribunals and suggests that social scientists can contribute to exploring the causal link between speech and violence (2017). Jordan Kiper highlights the importance of anthropological methods in examining crimes of incitement (2015). Holly Porter’s work demonstrates the importance of the local context—for example, what constitutes socially transgressive sex—to understand legal categories of rape and consent (2016). Kamari Clarke’s study of the International Criminal Court in Africa discloses how affect is mobilized by the seemingly rational criminal court (2019). Such studies have the potential to diversify legal reasoning and theorizing and point to the work of power relations in international law. Ultimately, anthropological analyses have the potential to provide a holistic understanding of violence and injustice in the past in a context of understanding current societies and institutions that may contribute to building futures that are more equitable, sustainable and just.
Anthropologists have engaged in justice issues through law and legal institutions as described above but also offered provocative and creative challenges to normative assumptions about the link between justice and law (Brunneggar 2020). As historian of human rights Samuel Moyn has argued, human rights are “not enough” and have failed to promote social and economic justice (2018). Anthropologists have also explored resistance movements and other struggles for social justice (Alexandrakis 2016; Juris 2012) (see Figure 6). These studies have considered new ethical concerns, especially related to knowledge production (Greenberg 2016) and fieldwork (Maeckelberg 2016). Some anthropologists have pointed to struggles for environmental justice beyond the law (Bocarejo 2020). Others have noted the connections between violence and law and have analyzed vigilante justice as opposed to human rights in Bolivia (Goldstein 2003). Other analysts consider incommensurabilities between law and justice (Clarke 2009; Rosen 2020). Brunneggar has pointed to the possibility of considering justice as a method (2020), including the example of Laurence Ralph’s exploration of police violence in Chicago and its use of exchanges in writing as both research and engagement (2020).
Anthropological Method as a Tool for Social Justice
Focusing explicitly on issues related to peace and justice rather than claiming objectivity, neutrality, or universal truth is one concrete way for the discipline to be more pragmatic, relevant, attractive, and useful to students, helping them to build scientific, theoretical, methodological skills and contextual knowledge that can form the basis for work in a range of fields. These skills and tools are not just ethnographic; the concept of culture itself proves fruitful for understanding how symbols work, how ideas and processes circulate, how power moves, and how, as Margaret Mead said, “a few like-minded individuals can change the world.”42
As Faye Harrison notes, the transformative aspect of anthropology is based on the participatory ethic often centered on long-term fieldwork.43 Although anthropologists often have amplified marginalized voices, there are also important debates and issues of trust related to collaborations across vast power differentials that must be considered in terms of how research is designed and disseminated (Yarbrough 2020).
Good ethnography is becoming more collaborative, working directly with the community on specific problems, and also becoming more multi-sited.44 By familiarizing ourselves with zones of difference and discomfort, we learn to change long-term systems and societal structures and to have collective and systemic responses and not just emotional reflex reactions that do little to bring justice and fairness to the world (see Marcus 2012). Engagement with difference transforms the anthropologist (and individuals more generally) and ultimately society. A 2015 statement by the Executive Committee of the European Association of Social Anthropologists offers a convincing argument for the “need for anthropology.”45 Citing Eric Wolf, they call anthropology “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities,” for it explores human diversity with a focus on what makes anthropology distinctive and what anthropologists have in common, what is described as the art and science of “making the familiar exotic and the exotic familiar.”
Most outsiders, and many within the discipline of anthropology, see anthropology as the study of “remote places” or so-called “primitive” and small-scale societies, complete with all their maligned societal stereotypes. Most anthropologists today realize the global, inter-connected, and complex nature of the world, especially in issues such as migration, climate change, global political economic financial flows, and the transnational circulation of everything (Appadurai 1996).46 Nevertheless, there are great disparities; the flow of everything is not even everywhere. Anthropology is useful for understanding complex social and political problems. The ethnographic method fosters long-term collaborative research that may disclose aspects of local worlds inaccessible to researchers who use other methods. Sustainable change involves changes in policies and processes. Applied anthropology can and does play a role in evaluation and monitoring of this programming. See, for example, the work of Shirley Fiske et al. (2014) on climate change. Participant observation sheds a certain light not possible through interviews, impersonal algorithms, or many other types of quantitative or historical data. Ethnographic research is particularly useful when looking at issues of peace and justice because war, violence, and “extremism” begin as human ideas.47 This cool-headed and inclusive method of anthropological comparison based on ethnography as well as qualitative and quantitative approaches is effective precisely because it is human-centric.
Our fine-grained methodology and nuanced hermeneutical (i.e., interpretive) frameworks provide possibilities for making the invisible visible—by amplifying the silenced informal networks between the subalterns, high-status individuals, organizations, and states.48 The anthropological method of direct observation and collaboration sheds light on subtle nuances, ambiguities, contradictions, and other critical but difficult-to-discern aspects of resistance and conflict. Anthropology also deters a common desire to simplify complex issues, which leads to disinformation and polarization. The consummate polarization between parties and the “clash of civilizations”49 or “jihad versus McWorld”50 oppositions have done more to mystify and hinder peace and justice than to clarify them. By resisting the mechanistic and simplistic accounts of human actions and accepting complex and interconnected realities, anthropology sometimes offers new interpretations which are necessary for positive peace. Positive peace is more than the absence of war; it is peace that is built on sustainable investments in economic development and institutions as well as societal attitudes that foster peace.51 Complex accounts of human actions also work to counter hegemony and support social transformation and university students themselves are on the forefront such movements.52
The anthropology of social movements focuses on collective mobilizations such as Black Lives Matter,53 Indigenous and Native Rights movements, and women’s (#MeToo), LGBTQ, and economic justice movements which also confront ideas of racial privilege and white supremacy. Peace and Justice studies consider how social actors use their agency to change unequal and oppressive systems, especially their structure and institutions, but also cultural practices. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices. Structure refers to the recurrent, patterned arrangements which influence or limit opportunities available to individuals and groups. Anthropologists have studied this dialectic (inquiry into contradictions and their solutions) ethnographically and comparatively, examining issues of power and justice across cultures. The “Yellow Vest movement”54 in today’s France, the “African Greenbelt Movement,”55 the Indian Farmers’ Protests,56 and the “Landless Workers Movement”57 in Brazil are not just regional movements; they are tied to greater global movements for environmental, social, and economic justice (see Figure 7). These movements are multi-vocal and holistic in both scale and scope. Behind these collective mobilizations are people and structures (e.g., NGOs, social movement organizations, and political parties), working to facilitate social change and access to resources for groups excluded from power.
Anthropologists have long been interested in “change from below” or what James Scott (2008) termed “weapons of the weak.”58 Key topics such as immigrant rights, climate justice, women’s marches, economic equality, Occupy Wall Street, gun violence, and issues of authoritarian rule and neoliberalism in the era of globalization have inspired anthropological inquiries, even if they have not been framed as justice per se. A hands-on approach to learning through applied and public anthropology can build vibrant pathways for changing the world. See, for example, the work of Paul Farmer59 or Dori Tunstall.60
Black women anthropologists have written about issues of police brutality, mass incarceration, and racialized and gendered state violence in the U.S. and across the globe. Ruha Benjamin, Kia Caldwell, Keisha-Khan Perry, Christen Smith, Dana Ain-Davis, Bianca C. Williams, Erica Williams, and many other women and men of color continue to speak about discrimination disproportionately affecting Black people in the U.S., pointing out that white bodies remain at the center of our discipline and public intellectual discourse. Although anthropology has made many inroads regarding white female representation within the discipline, forms of gendered and especially racial exclusion in higher education remain abundant. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are ongoing issues throughout the discipline; much work needs to be done to pursue racial and social justice in our workplaces within academia and beyond.
There are many ethical conundrums in anthropology regarding social movements, gender and racial justice, security, terrorism, counterterrorism, and international conflict resolution in general (Nyamjoh 2012). Despite anthropology’s best intentions to advance diversity, anthropologists often end up objectifying and “othering” (labeling or defining individuals as not fitting social norms) marginalized populations (Mama 2002). For Achille Mbembe (2000), the African post-colony (i.e., contemporary Africa) has wrongly been framed as the “edge of the world.” The resources and economic benefits of the “developing world” are not benefiting their citizens.61 This pattern certainly seems to be the case regarding the many Western governments—especially that of the U.S.—that spend abundant resources on “securitization” in places like Africa and comparatively less on bottom-up economic development, infrastructure, or education.62
In an interconnected world where time and space have been compressed exponentially, so have the speed and growth of social justice movements ranging from the Arab Spring and Occupy Protests to the ongoing Movement for Black Lives. The anti-SARS (i.e., Special Anti-Robbery Squad) protests in Nigeria,63 the Tegaru and Oromo protests of Ethiopia,64 and the Farmers’ Protest in India65 all benefit from cheap and widely accessible technology and social media which themselves can invoke more violence and even state violence.
Paul Farmer’s (2004) work in both Haiti and Rwanda insists that “pathologies of power” hurt women, the poor, and people of color, especially Black people. He draws on the concepts of “culture” and “structural violence” and their intimate relationship with each other as mechanisms for explaining inequalities specific to health and illness (maternal mortality, child survival, and infectious disease) between different cultures which he measures with World Health Organization and UN data.66 Understanding the intersection of power and inequality has been especially important in understanding the Covid-19 pandemic;67 anthropologists have pointed to health disparities and also how the sense of emergency has been used to implement and justify violent policies (Adams and Nading 2020; Higgins, Martin, and Vesperi 2020). Sovereignty and access to land and water are core issues of environmental and economic justice as many struggle to find clean potable water.
Anthropology of Justice: Courses and Careers
Social justice awareness and activity are at a peak in much of the contemporary world, as evidenced by the Women’s Marches and Movement for Black Lives in the U.S. and ongoing economic justice protests (for democratization) in France, India, Eastern Africa, and Latin America. Anthropological theory and methods—especially the multidimensional, holistic perspective developed through ethnographic engagement, holism, and a nuanced concept of culture—speak directly to greater understanding, tolerance, and intergroup, interethnic, and interfaith relationships among people. An ethnographic focus illustrates possibilities for crafting conflict transformation and greater understanding in local contexts. Anthropology majors wishing to specialize in peace studies can research peace and justice topics in anthropology graduate programs or do interdisciplinary programs focused on peace, conflict, equality, and social justice.
Anthropology departments in Europe and the U.S. offer courses in human rights, peace studies, social justice, and activism. For example, courses now examine human rights activism and advocacy, social movements, peace and conflict studies, racial justice organizing, feminist activism, LGBTQ movements,68 socioeconomic justice, NGOs, and global health inequities as well as the impacts of technological “advances” (e.g., artificial intelligence).69 Other courses consider gender and racial discrimination; inequality and global economics; global health disparities; environmental justice; cultural heritage and indigenous rights; post-colonial and decolonization studies; development and humanitarianism; activism, advocacy, and NGOs; critical race and gender studies; human trafficking and modern slavery; migration and crime, , social justice, and mass incarceration; and public anthropology and nonviolence. Specialized programs offer skills-based practical training in mediation, conflict resolution, and community organizing. Most of these trends are not disciplinary but are the work of individual anthropologists who have decided to address these issues through their fieldwork.
Although anthropological training is rarely vocational or leading to direct jobs as “anthropologists,” its methods and theories do offer unique skills and anthropologists participate in the world labor market across many niches and professions in the public, nongovernmental, and private sectors. The recent rise in scholarly work on the “anthropology of NGOs”70 speaks to how intellectual flexibility and social justice awareness carry value in today’s world, evidenced by new trends referred to as “Anthropology of the Good”71 (Robbins 2013; Mattingly and Throop 2018). The contact between culturally different groups has never been as prevalent as it is today in almost every nation on earth. Long-distance travel, instant telecommunications (and “social media”), and expanding global markets make the need for cultural and linguistic competence helpful for economic and social success. The ever-growing issues of migration in the West and elsewhere are offering new ways of acting, thinking, and being and are also fodder for violence, hatred, and divisive politics. We can access other cultures through all of our senses at any time of the day and through mediascapes and non-stop news cycles. Issues such as nuclear proliferation (i.e., the continued construction of nuclear warheads) persist and need anthropological awareness which celebrates the similarities and differences within and between cultures and helps us understand who we are as humans, where we are going, what we should do, and why it has not been done already.
An understanding of anthropology, peace, conflict, and justice is applicable to a wide variety of careers, spanning the disciplines of education, medicine, law, business, nonprofit management, community development, social work, and advocacy. Anthropological training and skills can contribute to greater inclusion and diversity in a range of contexts. An understanding of changing technology, peace, conflict, cultural relativity, and justice expands one’s ability to think critically and invoke social change, based on an understanding that communities, collectives, common good, justice, and other ideals are not guaranteed and require socially engaged practices to develop.
Students who pursue degrees in anthropology often follow four career trajectories: positions in government, positions in NGOs or community service organizations, academia, or business. Business anthropology is a fast-evolving field, cross-cutting aerospace, technology, industry, manufacturing, and even social media. Anthropology offers applied theories for studying human behavior and special insights to understanding business72 (Jordan 2018). Many graduates of anthropology programs opt to become ethnographers, archaeologists, paleontologists, or primatologists. Careers in government can involve international development and sustainable development, forensic anthropology and crime scene investigation, cultural resources management, and even legislative staff. Careers in public service can range from advocacy and community organizing to historical preservation and literacy programs. Careers in education and health can be primarily as a teacher or researcher or include varying roles in medicine and public health. Anthropology offers a broad range of pertinent skills for the 21st century because it approaches human questions from historical, biological, linguistic, and cultural perspectives.73
In the field of law, practitioners often are working with disadvantaged clients who may be losing their homes, facing racial and gender discrimination, or settling disputes over trusts, estates, and other legal matters. The best law schools seek a diverse student body that can provide multidisciplinary perspectives to what is inherently a collaborative learning process with a focus on language, meaning, and power. An anthropology of peace also assists those working in medicine, especially on such questions as health-care inequities, maternal mortality, child survival, access, and health-care delivery in both developed and developing countries. The practice of compassionate medicine, with cost-effective innovation in access and delivery, is necessary for us to “repair the world,” as anthropologist Paul Farmer has been trying to do with his Partners in Health. Psychologists, counselors, and social workers also stand to benefit from training in anthropology and peace studies since understanding culture as well as conflict resolution and social justice contribute to individual and social well-being.
Education specialists and teachers have answered the call for greater understanding of culture and social justice. Schools and universities around the world now teach social justice and cultural diversity as core components of their pedagogy. Religious institutions and faith-based organizations look for staff to teach social justice, as the group “MPower”74 exhibits with a mission for social justice in the Muslim community to build power and invoke positive change. The commercial business sector is becoming increasingly aware of social and environmental justice because issues like fair trade, sustainability, and “positive peace” mean something to customers, employees, and employers alike. We have seen a rise in U.S. politicians with community-organizing and justice backgrounds, most recently President Obama and Congresswomen such as Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar. Peace and justice studies are intrinsically linked to advocacy work. Those working in agriculture, food, and the environment also gain from peace, justice, and anthropology for promoting healthier food, better use of land, water preservation, and a cleaner environment for people, plants, and animals. In all contexts, human beings can promote values of cultural diversity, justice, and peace to create a future that is beautiful, useful, and humane.
Manifestations of injustice are widespread. They are localized and globalized. They are acute and chronic. They are visible and invisible depending on positionality. They are structural and systemic, but they must also be addressed by individual actors in specific times and places. How people organize, how they learn news, and the way they seek to change policies around certain issues are important matters. Anthropology as a discipline is well suited for examining complex contemporary problems related to issues of violence, conflict, peace, social justice, and human rights. These issues are often of great interest to so-called “millennials” (individuals born from 1981 to 2001), and youth movements in the West and the Global South are pushing the limits as laid out in the introduction. The Anthropology of Peace and Justice is well poised to draw these interests together to help students transform ideas and reflections into consequential action and positive change in the world. Attention to the intersectional, multidimensional, and compounding forms of injustice has the potential to disclose the complexity of particular problems and inspire dialogue, collaboration, and innovative paths to just and equitable futures for all.
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3. Oxford web definition.
13. Link to Oxford HR Bibliography by Martinez, section Pros and Cons of relativism.
20. Native Anthropology, to be a Native Scholar, or a Scholar that is Native: Reviving Ethnography in Indian Country (an article by Richard Meyers, Association of Indigenous Anthropologists and a former writer/editor in Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, DC).
30. Center for a Public Anthropology; Applied anthropologist Merrill Singer has insisted that applied anthropologists have been already doing this for several decades and that there is no need for a “new label” like public anthropology (Rylko-Bauer, Singer, and van Willigen 2006, 6).
52. The authors of this piece, Elizabeth F. Drexler and Eric Montgomery, and also Director Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri are working on the role of anthropology for social justice through digital storytelling in ongoing courses at Princeton and Michigan State universities.